COVID-19 is having a huge impact on schools, colleges, and universities across the globe, with many closing or moving online. At the time of writing, 192 countries have implemented nationwide school closures, affecting a staggering 91% of the world’s student population. By necessity, education institutions are adapting quickly to the crisis, developing new and innovative ways to keep students motivated and learning at home.
While in many contexts, online learning may seem like the most obvious solution, each approach brings its own risks and opportunities. Here are six things to consider when implementing strategies to support remote learning amidst school closures.
1. Online platforms are not the only option
Many schools are devising e-learning plans and using online platforms to ensure that students can still learn while in isolation. Whilst this will work for some students, not all homes have the technology needed to support online learning.
The most marginalised students across the globe have been hit hardest by school closures, including students with disabilities, those living in conflict zones, and in many cultures, girls. Not only do they rely on school feeding, health, and social programs, but some live in rural communities that lack power, connectivity, and other basic infrastructure.
What are the alternatives to online learning that won’t exacerbate the digital divide?
TV and radio education have long been used to educate out-of-school children who have been marginalised by conflict or denied access to education. These approaches (and radio in particular) are cost-effective, simple, and immediate.
For example, Palladium is working with Tanzanian EdTech company Ubongo, who is sharing local content for children and caregivers via radio, TV, and the internet, reaching millions of households across 31 African countries.
A similar case can be pulled from the Ebola epicdemic. When schools were closed for up to 8 months, the Sierra Leone government provided daily educational radio programs, and listeners were able to call in with questions at the end of each session.
2. Design your learning strategy for the long term
As everyone works to do their part, many tech companies across the globe are offering distance learning solutions to schools free of charge. These new tools may certainly facilitate learning, and with the pressure on educators to deliver near-immediate solutions, free offers and quick fixes can be tempting.
But assessing students’ needs, designing an effective digital learning strategy, and introducing new platforms and processes takes time. Students are facing an unprecedented upheaval to their daily lives, and will be more successful using the tools and infrastructure that they already know where possible. The same goes for teachers and parents, all of whom have a stake in a longer-term, financially sustainable, and accessible strategy that works beyond the current crisis.
While teaching amidst closures is the current priority, continuity plans should also factor in the transition back to school after the crisis ends, as all involved will need time and guidance.
3. Teachers need support, too
While much of the focus is (rightfully) on students, it’s easy to overlook the social and emotional needs of teachers. Feelings of isolation and low morale are common in times like these, and they need extra support as they work to adjust to new platforms and virtual teaching methods.
Technology is only as good as the user, and investing in teacher’s training – and motivation – is fundamental to achieving the best outcomes, even for those who feel confident using new tools and systems. Peer engagement via social media or local groups, remote professional development opportunities, access to a licensed counsellor, and tips on working remotely are all ways to keep teachers engaged and effective.
4. Communicate with caregivers and communities
Difficulties communicating between schools and homes are not specific to the current pandemic, but doing so effectively is more important now than ever. Caregivers need information and guidance, from advice on managing a home learning environment, safeguarding plans, and assessments, to financial and health support.
Technology can help to disseminate messages and engage meaningfully with parents and communities. This can be done by inviting parents to remote assemblies or online collaboration forums, engaging via SMS, or setting up a phone helpline. Where cellular subscriptions are scarce, those with access can serve as conduits for the rest of the community.
5. Your duty of care still applies
Whether online or in person, learning methods require the same safety standards and duty of care no matter the environment. Live webcams must be in line with privacy protections, data requirements should comply with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requirements or the equivalent, and the appropriate filters, monitoring systems, and cyber security precautions must be in place to protect children when on the school’s IT systems.
Schools should identify who in their institution has the technical and legal knowledge to safeguard all involved.
6. Government and private sector collaboration is essential
COVID-19 is driving innovation in the private sector, with companies around the world pivoting their operations to meet society’s collective needs in this time of crisis. For tech companies in the e-learning space, the challenges of scale and access to technology and connectivity require close collaboration with governments. In fact, learning consortiums and coalitions are currently being mobilised across a wide range of stakeholders - including governments, publishers, education professionals, technology providers, and telecom network operators.
For example, the Chinese government has contracted tech companies such as Baidu, DingTalk, and Alibaba, along with telecom providers to work together to provide tech platforms, cloud capacity, and bandwidth to support online learning and teaching. This is being complemented with live television broadcasts for the 40% who are without internet, enabling millions of students to gain access to learning materials.
Technology can support learning during this difficult time, but it must be implemented correctly, and with the right wrap-around support. Particularly in low-income contexts, more evidence and research is required to identify affordable, effective, and scalable solutions. If done well, we have the potential to narrow the digital divide, empower teachers, and provide quality, long-term learning outcomes for students.
Priyanka Devani is Palladium's Education Director for EMEA.
Palladium implements the Institutions for Inclusive Development (I4ID) project, which is funded with UK aid from the British people. Through I4ID, Palladium is helping the Tanzania Institute for Education esablish a flexible and adaptive teacher engagement platform.
Through the Human Development Innovation Fund (HDIF), Palladium is working closely with grantees who are using their platforms to support e-learning, including Ubongo.